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TOLEDO — Tait Purk has waived his right to a jury trial, meaning the state’s second attempt to convict him of murder charges in the case of his missing girlfriend will be heard by a judge.

The move came last week just as prosecutors appealed a district court judge’s ruling that threw out a first-degree murder verdict in Purk’s first trial.

Purk’s fiancée, Cora Okonski, disappeared in April 2000 following an argument. Although a body has never been found, Purk was charged with murder in December. A jury found him guilty of murder following a May trial.

But Judge Mitchell Turner, who presided at the trial, overturned the verdict in August, ruling the state didn’t prove Okonski was killed in April 2000 and stating the accounts of two witnesses who said Purk had confessed to the slaying weren’t credible and weren’t corroborated by other evidence.

The move set the case for retrial.

Tama County Attorney Brett Heeren on Wednesday said in court records Turner abused his discretion when he ordered a new trial.

“Except in the extraordinary case in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict, the trial court should not lessen the jury’s role as the primary trier of facts by granting a new trial,” Heeren wrote in the appeal. “A trial court should not disturb the jury’s findings where the evidence they considered is nearly balanced or such that different minds could fairly arrive at different conclusions.”

He said the judge anticipated a not guilty verdict and “cherry picked” evidence when he backed the defense’s request for a new trial. As an example, he said the account of a jailhouse witness who said Purk confessed to killing Okonski and briefly storing her body in a bathroom closet was corroborated by the fact Purk’s bathroom had a closet large enough to hold a body. The witness had never been to Purk’s home.

The jury foreman, a school principal, contacted the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in August to express disappointment after learning the verdict was overturned, according to court records.

He was interviewed by an Iowa DCI agent and said after the verdict, the judge asked jurors during an informal discussion about James Lambert, one of Okonski’s ex-boyfriends. Lambert didn’t testify and wasn’t brought up in deliberations but was mentioned by other witnesses during the trial. The jury foreman said he thought the judge had a “preconceived notion” about the ex-boyfriend.

The foreman also told the DCI agent jurors had found credible the two witnesses who said Purk had admitted to the slaying, according to a synopsis of the DCI inteview, which was included in Heeren’s appeal.

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Police and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Courier

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